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Hopping Toward The Heights of Fame

My best friend, Eric - well, at least he was the kid I hung out with most - became the Slurpee-slurping champion of the neighborhood early that summer. His eyes bulging, he snatched the paper cup from my hand, then sloshed down all the green slush in 14.3 seconds.

It was a stupendous feat, but still it was the triumph of Eddy Fitzsimmons that lingered most in our memory. On the eighth day of July that summer, Eddy sank to his hands and knees and crawled a full mile without stopping. And in doing this, he'd nearly made it into the book that Eric and I read through every day, annotating and memorizing: The world's record for crawling, as chronicled by The Guinness Book of Records, was 5.53 miles.

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Eddy had nearly become famous. And we all wanted to become famous. We all wanted to rise out of our drab juvenile universe and become, like our sports heroes, implacable, larger than life. We all held the same aspiration, and we all had an angle. My own forte, as a skittish, skinny 10-year-old growing up in a Connecticut suburb, was obscure. I could pogo-stick. I could clench the stick's shaft between my thighs, tense my abdomen, and bounce 17 times with no hands (and only one foot) touching the stick. I could leap puddles, and I could execute perfectly those tiny, one-inch-off the-ground sewing-machine hops you need to do if you want to pogo for a long time.

Past 1,000, past 2,000

I was the best pogo-sticker in the neighborhood, but I was silent about my prowess. Until, that is, the muggy August morning I stepped into our garage and started in on those sewing-machine hops. And kept going - past Eric's consecutive-jump best, 478 pogos, then past 1,000, past 2,000, past 3,000, and on up toward the exhausting, exhilarating heights of five-digit pogo-stick jumping.

When I hit 5,000, the staccato beat of the pogos was smoothing out. The jumps were flowing together into a slinky rhythm, and the coal-black spring was compressing and expanding, compressing and expanding, dancing on the shaft of the stick. I hopped over to the corner and pulled open the overhead door. I stripped off my shirt.

Eric sauntered into the garage just after 8,000. I looked at the floor, then out through the spider webs that encrusted the window. I did not look at him, but he began counting jumps, and then he ran inside to get a clipboard and pencil. I was, you see, halfway there. The world's record for consecutive pogo stick jumps was 17,323.

"If anything happens," Eric said, once I passed 12,000, "if you go on TV or anything, I'm your manager, right?" A thousand pogos later, he was peeling his bike toward home. He wanted to get some decent clothes on, in case the press did cover this. But I was only vaguely concerned with him now.

'Mom! C'mere! Quick!'

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The only thing that mattered in the world, really, was that I stayed on until 17,324. I was on the verge of making history - and I was also on the verge of crashing to the garage floor. My stick was squeaking for lack of oil, and the muscles in my thighs were shaking. And I knew this: Anyone who made it all the way to 16,000, and then fell off, was a loser.

"Seventeen thousand, three hundred and nineteen, 20, 21." Eric was squatting on the driveway, his hands pressed prayerlike before him. "Twenty-two, 23, 17,324!" He burst from the asphalt, his arms high over his head, and then bounded up and down, keeping pace with me as I eked out a few insurance pogos. For a moment, I thought his joy was hilarious. Mainly, though, I was weary: At 17,354, I stopped. I limped to our porch and we waited - Eric in a resplendent white shirt and I in an undershirt on which he had emblazoned "World Champion." The first reporter to arrive - and it took her nearly two hours to get there - was a friend of my mother's. I knew her son.

Only one TV crew came, and they left after 10 minutes. They made no promises, so we were in mortal suspense watching the news that evening. For almost an hour, we heard about nothing but Watergate. My father, beside me in his gray suit, was dozing off. My mother, having given up, was in the kitchen, carving the pot roast. Then, suddenly, the anchorman said, "A 10-year-old boy ..." "Hey, that's you!" said my dad. And sure enough, the guy in the white T-shirt, the one flying all over our TV screen, was me.

"Mom! C'mere! Quick! I'm on TV!"

I am in my 30s now, and of course I am not famous at all. I've never been in the record book; Guinness, we found, only acknowledges feats witnessed by impartial adults. I'm not entirely jaded, though. The other day as I sat in my house trying to write, there was this kid pelting a tennis ball at the brick wall across the street. I went outside to shoo him away. But when I got out there, I wasn't sure what was running through his mind.

Maybe he was angry and just venting steam. Or maybe he was driven by some vague hope that, by ceaselessly tossing a ball against a wall, he could launch himself out of kid world, out of the world of chores and broken toys, and become a world champion, a star.

I decided not to say anything. I just stood there, watching the ball spinning smoothly against the bricks, now ricocheting off the mortar, now flying madly, dangerously, off some crack in the sidewalk, watching, glad each time the kid caught the ball.

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